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The Anatomy of a Productivity System

This lesson is a part of an audio course Productivity Systems for Developers by James Bowen

In our previous lessons, we covered how to filter the work that we commit to, and how to ensure our focus when we pick it up. Now we’ll look at fitting work into a repeatable process, so we can be consistently productive each day. By the end of this lesson you’ll have covered:

  • Why lists are just the start
  • The benefit of capturing everything
  • The value of planning ahead

Lists Are Just the Start

Think back to the last time you went on holiday, or had to do a handover at your work. How did you make sure that nothing slipped through the cracks? Chances are you made a list. And for shopping, so you don’t miss the unusual spice that goes in your new recipe? Or picking up cheaper supplies for the trip away – whilst you’re actually near the camping shop? Lists again.

Lists are very useful for relieving the nagging feeling that we’ve forgotten something. The problem is, most of us tend to only use them after we’ve identified a need not to forget. We want to be using them proactively, and as part of a wider strategy.

What we instead want is to be capturing information into lists all the time, in an effortless way. Have you ever realized the solution for something whilst taking a shower, or going for a walk? If so, you’ll realize that sometimes when and where you identify the idea is different from the time that you can action it.

The Benefits of Capturing Everything

By setting up a system to capture everything, and making that process a habit, we will be able to extend the relief that shopping lists give us into everyday life, including our day job. I first heard the term ‘Second Brain’ at a seminar by productivity consultants Think Productive. It’s quite a good way of putting it, a place to offload things.

If you always know where to find your to-do list then your brain starts to trust the system. If your brain starts to trust the system, it will be able to let go of that thought. Result? A little less anxiety and nagging doubt about unfinished work. And if you do this 100% off the time, you’ll soon be on autopilot, freeing up your brain.

Let’s look at what a system that can capture everything would look like next.

Funneling Everything to a Single Source

Since we’re living in the digital world as developers, our day consists of inputs from:

  • Emails/Instant messages.
  • Files – source code, configuration files, pull requests, etc.
  • Ideas that come into our heads.
  • Actions that get assigned to us/verbal instructions from our boss.
  • Photos/Screenshots that capture what we need.
  • Web Pages to assist (Wiki documents, StackOverflow, etc).

Your system needs to be able to ‘funnel’ these distinct inputs into one trusted system. That way, you always know where to go to retrieve an item, or action the item. During a 2012 interview, Barack Obama himself admitted to only having grey or blue suits during his tenure. He did this to reduce his trivial decision making and to save his energy for important thinking. This is exactly what we’re trying to achieve with a system that’s second nature.

Now, inputting is all well and good, but for our system to be of any use, we need to retrieve it efficiently too. When we’re ready to carry a task out, we have all our materials together, ready to go. So, we’ll need to categorize what we capture. We’ll look at that next.

Categorize What You Capture

Whenever capturing inputs we need to ask ourselves the following questions as we store it:

  • Do I need to do something with this information, or is it just for reference?
  • Is this a component of a bigger piece of work, or a standalone item?
  • Is there a time component to this task (for example can’t start before, must not finish after)?
  • Must it be done precisely on this date and time – there’s no point in you turning up to the dentist an hour early or an hour late after all.

There are plenty of tools that let us store/categorise/retrieve. How elaborate it gets is down to the value you personally get out of it. Google Drive, Evernote and Microsoft OneNote are examples of tools that can support our one-place to-go setup. You need to get a bit creative with your tools, but:

  • You can upload information from photos, documents, recordings (your input).
  • You can extract information from emails and add these to your todo-lists.
  • You can add actions from your colleagues/boss to the same to-do lists.
  • You can link off to various documents for reference.
  • You can tag documents by work stream, organise them by folders etc.
  • You can put to-do dates in your documents, or integrate with calendars to remind you of impending dates.

With a system that lets you funnel and categorise information in this way, you have a portable system that you can retrieve from at any time. If your priorities change, all you need to do is switch to wherever your new priority is stored.

Your system is available wherever you are, assuming you have phone and tablet versions installed. Another advantage of this ‘always available’ system is that you can use it to prepare for the following day.

The Value of Planning Ahead

I can give two very straightforward examples of where planning ahead leads to some big wins.

One is by setting yourself goals. At the end of my workday, I stop and think about what I need to get done tomorrow based on my current commitments. These form daily goals, which I tag and have highly visible in my system to keep me focused. You could do the same with post-it notes attached to your monitor as long as they’re prominent. The point is, it’s on Monday night that I decide what I want to achieve throughout Tuesday. I’m not wasting valuable mental bandwidth on Tuesday morning working out what my priorities should be.

The other is by anticipating what ‘future you’ will need. In my job, I set reminders using OmniFocus on Friday afternoon before I finish work. When I came in on Monday, after my morning coffee, a helpful message pops up at 09:10 telling me exactly where I got up on Friday. I survived the forgetfulness that my colleague described as the ‘weekend lobotomy’.


Instead of making lists only when we feel out of control, we want to move to a system that reflects our ‘entire world’ – our world at work at least. To offload anxiety we’re after a system that:

  • Is available anytime, anywhere – so the idea you have on your walk doesn’t get lost.
  • Allows you to categorise things as belonging to a specific stream of work.
  • Allows you to easily retrieve everything related to a given stream of work.

In terms of reflecting on your current commitments, you want “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. In terms of a time component, you want to know when you should be focusing on certain tasks.

With a system like this in place, you can make huge gains in productivity.

Remember the 2.5 hours Evernote cited as lost each day? You can claw some back some of that time by only having one place to go for information you’ve previously found. A ‘cache’ if you will.

Remember the context switching of 3-5 mins? If you batch up your gathering of inputs, and separate that from the doing’ you can stay focused. Especially if you combine that with the pomodoro technique.

Next we’ll look at GTD, as this gives a concrete framework for a productivity system. It will seem elaborate at first – but it can be picked up quickly – and the gains are huge. Thanks for listening.

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Written by

James Bowen